The Strains of Sermon Preparation

In my thirty-five years of preaching, I’ve notice a constant occurrence: Sunday comes every seven days. It’s relentless. The sermon, therefore, can’t be delayed to Monday or another day next week. Sunday comes whether I’ve had two funerals, a wedding, twelve hospital visits, a holiday, or a sick child. The weekly sermon might be a tad easier if my only responsibility was to preach and I did not have administrative tasks, management problems, or committee meetings.

Sunday comes and the preacher has to be ready. What’s a preacher to do?

The preacher could use other people’s sermons. Plenty of websites and resources abound for the preacher to pilfer. And, I admit, I’ve stockpiled countless sermons published over the years. While I’m all for studying other people’s sermons and, from time to time, have read or listened to others to gain insight about a particular text, preaching other people’s sermons would not be ethical. Some preachers have been caught and lost their jobs. The temptation is real for all preachers, but we avoid it at all costs.

A strong trend exists, especially among larger churches, to utilize a team-teaching approach. In those situations, the principle preacher may preach 26-35 times a year, with other competent communicators carrying the load the other weeks. In many of those situations, this approach works well. The congregation accepts it. And, it allows periodic breaks for the primary preacher.

Yet in many churches, team-teaching is unfeasible. Though a hybrid approach could be implemented where, even though the preacher does not have a preaching team, the preacher allows staff, gifted lay members, and guest preachers to fill the pulpit. This method periodically frees the principle preacher from the grind of preparation. However, a warning is in order: When you give up the microphone, you give up control. One must be cautious and careful regarding who is allowed to preach. Some guest preachers have done great damage to a congregation.

Planning has worked well for me in reducing the sermon preparation strain. I learned early in my career that if I waited until Monday before I decided my preaching text or topic for the upcoming Sunday, I was wasting invaluable time and creating monumental stress. Some churches employ the lectionary, which helps in the planning process, but my approach is to preach in series, interspersed with stand-alone and special occasion sermons. Thusly, my preaching plan gives me direction, intentionality, and purpose.

A preaching plan’s benefits are:

1. Balance. A healthy church is balanced around the five purposes: evangelism, discipleship, worship, fellowship, and ministry. Preaching needs to reflect that balance. In addition, a preaching plan provides a balance of law and history, narrative and epistle, poetry and prophecy, embracing both New and Old Testament.

2. Creativity. Creativity comes with time and is rarely rushed. Unrushed time in planning and preparation allows the creative juices to flow. Those who wing it or push their preparation to the last minute rarely preach homiletical gems. The pain of regret is preaching a sermon and coming up with a good idea afterwards.

3. Greater depth. Deep preaching comes out of advanced study and preparation. The best sermon series have been stewing in the preacher for some time. Planning allows you to think about what you want people to know, to feel, and to do. Ask these three questions of each sermon and worship gathering.

4. The Holy Spirit works, in advance and in the preaching moment. Some preachers say, “I preach as the Holy Spirit moves.” The Holy Spirit can move a week, a month, or a year prior to the preaching event. In fact, some of my more moving sermons had been planned and prepared months in advance of the presentation.

5. Maximum results. The time management adage is true for preaching: Proper planning prevents poor performance. We could add: we don’t plan to fail, we fail to plan. When we do little planning, we get limited results. Planning your preaching allows you to gather an abundance of resources to add value to the preaching moment, enriching your hearers.

6. Lowers stress. Having a plan allows you to prepare in advance and eases some of the weekly preaching pressure. Now you can prepare sermons weeks in advance. Such preparation provides great freedom and reduces strain.

Yet even with a plan, sermon preparation is hard, time-consuming work. That’s unavoidable. Once the plan is in place, I devote the weekday mornings to sermon preparation. I protect my study time and keep it as I would any other appointment. In the study, I do diligent reflection, exegesis, and outlining of the text. I bring all of my cognitive, spiritual, and physical resources to bear on the text. When done, I have more information than is needed for the Sunday sermon. I cull and refine and rewrite to the appropriate length. By Thursday, I’ve written a full manuscript. Having the sermon completed early in the week affords me ample time to practice delivery and know the content, so when I enter the pulpit to deliver the sermon the message is part of me, enabling me to use few notes and to speak from my heart.

Preaching is perhaps the most important task of the pastor. Often, because of the preaching plan, much of my studying, reading, and gathering of information can be used for future sermons. I file those ideas and resources away for those respective sermons. In addition, the plan allows others to feed my preparation and sermons through insights, notes, comments, videos, etc. Having a plan in place allows worship leaders to coordinate and supplement worship elements around the sermon theme.

Yes, Sunday comes every seven days, but with a preaching plan you can greatly reduce the strain of sermon preparation.

Rick Ezell blogs at Defining Moments.

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